We now move to the west side as we continue on the rocky road to consolidation, having recounted the relatively stable growth of New Town through the early 20th century, and into the 1930s — at least until mayor Tom Truder’s stormy tenure during that decade.
To fully understand why Old Town existed as a separate and independent municipality, readers need to be familiar with two turning points in the history of the west side. Because both events were so important in the evolution of West Las Vegas, they were recounted at length and with particularity in earlier columns, but a clear grasp of the road to consolidation requires their brief review here. (See Nuestra Historia: “One Las Vegas, 1882-1884,” “Eugenio Romero Wins, East Bolts,” Aug. 2011; “Failed Unity,” “Old Town Remained Firmly Rooted,” and “Land Grant Prompted Town of Las Vegas in 1903,” Sept. 2012.)
The first of those events was the failed attempt at unity in 1882. Within just three years of the railroad’s arrival, the population in east Las Vegas equaled that of west Las Vegas. As the entire community grew, citizens clamored for a combined municipal government, to provide basic services and law enforcement. Thus it was that in early 1882, a citizens’ petition was presented to the San Miguel County Commission, seeking the combined incorporation of the two communities. By then each side of the Gallinas had a roughly equal population, the east side almost entirely Anglo, the west side almost entirely Hispanic.
The petition was granted, the two sides were incorporated as one municipality, and the first city election was set for July 18, 1882, in what became a racially charged struggle, each side confident of victory. Facing off to become the first mayor of the combined city were Eugenio Romero from the west side, and Oliver L. Houghton from the east side, and the election would determine much more than the first mayor of the unified city — it would decide the compelling question whether Anglo newcomers would take control of Las Vegas, or whether Hispanics would continue to have a say in their destiny.
The day after the election, Don Eugenio’s victory was caustically described by the Denver Republican, a leading Colorado newspaper: “A Mexican cyclone swept over Las Vegas with a two hundred vote majority for the Mexican candidate for mayor.” The unified City would exist for only two years, however, and until consolidation in 1970, Eugenio Romero remained the first and only mayor of the combined City of Las Vegas.
What happened was that in 1884, the territorial legislature enacted a law which dissolved and unincorporated all New Mexico municipalities, requiring that they re-incorporate under new statutes. Under the dissolution law, the combined City of Las Vegas ceased to exist after a mere two years, and in 1888, the citizens of New Town incorporated the area east of the Gallinas River as a separate and independent municipality known as East Las Vegas. (The dissolution law was enacted at the behest of Anglo leaders in New Town, who were bereft at the thought of Hispanic dominance, following Romero’s defeat of Houghton, as recounted in “Eugenio Romero Wins, East Bolts,” referenced above.)
As for the west side, after the 1884 dissolution law, Old Town remained unincorporated for another 20 years, without a mayor, council or municipal administration — until the second turning point in 1902. In that year, the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in the case of Maese v. Herman, which had begun in the Las Vegas courthouse years earlier over the long struggle for control of the Las Vegas Land Grant. Since 1860, when Congress confirmed the half-million acre grant to the “town of Las Vegas,” there had been widespread confusion about the ownership and administration of the grant. Finally, in the Maese case, the Supreme Court decided that the Las Vegas Land Grant was lawfully vested in the people of the “town of Las Vegas,” as confirmed by Congress.
The decision caused more confusion than it resolved, and competing plans were promptly advanced for control of the grant. One plan, advanced by Don Margarito Romero, youngest of the five Romero brothers, proposed that the original Las Vegas be incorporated as a “town,” in conformity with the Supreme Court decision, allowing the municipality to have lawful control of the land grant. Romero’s proposal won support in Old Town, and in 1903 the west side was incorporated as a municipality, and the newly formed Town of Las Vegas elected Don Margarito as its first mayor. (The Town never did secure control of the land grant, as explained in earlier columns.)
For the next quarter century, a Romero brother or nephew reigned supreme as mayor of West Las Vegas, until cousin and protégée Lorenzo Delgado ousted them, in elections which were held under the watchful eye of the New Mexico National Guard, ordered here by the governor to keep the peace — so intense was the political acrimony on the west side in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.